The Message in the Neatly Folded Napkin in Jesus’ Tomb-Fiction!

Summary of eRumor:

According to this forwarded email, the head covering over the body of Jesus Christ in the grave was a neatly “folded napkin.”   It goes on to say that among Jews of the time a master would let his servants know whether he was finished eating or coming back to the table by the way he left his napkin.  If he tossed it aside, he was finished.  If he folded it, he was not finished and would return.  The hidden message in the story is that by laying his “napkin” aside and neatly folded Jesus was saying he was coming back.

The Truth:

There are a couple of problems with this eRumor.  One is the translation or interpretation of the Bible verse quoted.  The other is the alleged Jewish custom referenced in the story.

The Verse
The eRumor is based on whether the cloth was a “napkin” and was “folded” in the empty tomb of Jesus.

The story is based on the account of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20:7.

Here is how that verse is translated in one of the most widely-used versions of the Bible, the King James Version:  “…and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.”

We checked seven of the most respected translations of the Bible to see how the translators handled this verse.

Three of them translated the cloth as a “napkin” (King James, American Standard, Revised Standard Version).  Others translated it as a “burial cloth” (New International Version), a “handkerchief” (The New King James Version), or a “face-cloth” (New American Standard Bible).   The Greek word is saudarion, which comes from a Latin word for “sweat.”  It connotes, for example, a towel for wiping sweat.  It is used in the Greek for a towel or cloth, but not specifically a table napkin.

The other key word is “folded.”  Was the burial cloth or napkin left folded in the tomb?

Two of the translations used the word “folded” (New International Version, New King James Version).  Others translated the word as “rolled up” (New American Standard Bible, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version), or “wrapped together” (King James Version).
The Greek word is “entulisso,” which is from words that may mean to twist or to entwine.

The bottom line is that there is not agreement that it was a table napkin and not agreement that it was neatly folded in any meaningful way.  The main meaning of John 20:7 is to convey that the cloth, which was placed over Jesus head or face at burial, was separate from the rest of his grave clothes.

The Story
We have checked numerous Bible study sources and have found nothing about this alleged Jewish custom of the folded napkins.  We did not find any Bible scholars who have used this story and illustration about the meaning of the folded napkin.

Additionally we talked with a Jewish rabbi friend of’s who has been a life-long Orthodox Jew, a Jewish scholar, and lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and he said he’d never heard of it

The only references to this story that we found are from Internet postings and emails that seem to have originated in 2007.

Updated 1/28/08

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A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:


Why did Jesus fold the napkin?

An unusual approach to a biblical story. Why did Jesus fold the
linen burial cloth after His resurrection? I never noticed

The Gospel of John (20:7) tells us that the napkin, which was
placed over the face of Jesus, was not just thrown aside like
the grave clothes. The Bible takes an entire verse to tell us
that the napkin was neatly folded, and was placed at the head
of that stony coffin.

Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene
came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away
from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other
disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.

She said, ‘They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and
I don’t know where they have put him? Peter and the other
disciple ran to the tomb to see. The other disciple out ran
Peter and got there first. He stooped and looked in and saw the
linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter
arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings
lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was
folded up and lying to the side.

Is that important?
Is it really significant?
In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin,
you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of
that day. The folded napkin had to do with the Master and
Servant, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition.

When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made
sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The
table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait,
just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and
the servant would not dare touch that table, until the master
was finished. Now if the master was done eating, he would rise
from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his
beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table.
The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those
days, the wadded napkin meant, ‘I’m done’. But if the master
got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it
beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table,

The folded napkin meant, ‘I’m coming back!’

He is Coming Back!